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Hamlin, Biffle, Bowyer all fighting through clouds, and Edwards' engine woes at Michigan may be unsettling

  Ford CEO Alan Mulally checking his company's NASCAR investment (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern


    BROOKLYN, Mich.
    Playoffs hopes are dimming for Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle, and speculation about Clint Bowyer's future may cloud his chase hopes, and several championship contenders had less than championship-caliber runs in Sunday's Michigan 400, Carl Edwards included.
    But for Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, this was a blue sky afternoon in the Irish Hills.

    Johnson is already game-face-on for the championship, cranking up the mind games, and clearly back on his game out on the track, after some struggles.
    Keselowski, despite that broken foot, is running on adrenalin and is one of the hottest drivers in the sport at the moment, with three straight top-threes, including a win at Pocono, a second at Watkins Glen, and a third here.
    So, does Kyle Busch reckon he can knock Johnson off the throne and win the Sprint Cup championship….which Johnson has won five straight years now?
   "We're 13 weeks from me being able to answer your question," a clearly jubilant Busch was saying Sunday afternoon, after edging Johnson for the win. 
    "Certainly I'd like to give ourselves a lot of credit that we can do that…that we have the ability to do that. 
    "But I feel like it's anybody's game right now still. 
    "Carl Edwards had (engine) problems (finishing 36th); but they can still come back…and they're still in the chase.  Carl is going to be tough. 
    "Jimmie is going to be tough.
    "Kevin Harvick (though having yet another off day, finishing 22nd) is going to be good. 
     "Hopefully we can get our teammate in there, Denny, and he'll be good too. 
      "For us it's going to come down to minimizing those bad days and keeping our heads on straight."


Kyle Busch (green, low) passes Jimmie Johnson on the inside for the lead late in Sunday's Michigan 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


      And Busch is still ever-mindful of 2008, the season he dominated, with eight victories, and the season he blew it in the playoffs, with mechanical woes the first three chase races.
     Until you beat Jimmie Johnson and wrestle that championship away from him, you'd better not get too cocky.
   And Busch realizes that well: "There's way too much that can happen. Way too many laps to run, way too many miles to run. 
    "Certainly we've built ourselves into championship contenders this year. That's our strong suit -- being able to be consistent, or at least try to be consistent on our bad days and try to come back and get a top-10…and try to minimize the damage from the week before the following week."
     Yes, and credit crew chief Dave Rogers for much of that.
      While much of the talk this season has been about Busch and his expanding maturity, just as key to this team's title potential is Rogers, a veteran engineer at Gibbs' since 1998, and now in his second season running Busch's team. Rogers, whose first NASCAR win with Busch was in the NASCAR race at Mexico City in the spring of 2008, is a highly-technical crew chief, once the right-hand engineer for Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli. But Rogers this season has developed into a full-fledged championship-caliber crew chief, with a no-nonsense approach.

    The final, fateful restart: a green-white-checkered finish, with Kyle Busch (green, outside) giving Jimmie Johnson the inside line at the line...because he wasn't sure just what Brad Keselowski (3rd, inside, Lite) was going to do (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "Kyle Busch is the most competitive guy I've ever worked with," Rogers says.
    "He beat himself up more than he should have last week (at Watkins Glen, where Busch led on the final green-white-checkered restart, yet lost).  A better car won.  We had Marcos Ambrose beat on pit strategy, but he had the better car.
     "But Kyle still took it personal. So this is good vindication for Kyle."
     And if anybody expects Busch and Rogers to start laying off, now that they've just officially clinched a spot in the playoffs, which don't open until Sept. 18th in Chicago, well, they've got just one word in response: Bristol.
     Busch will go into next Saturday night's Bristol race as the favorite; it's one of his best tracks.
    "Atlanta (the following week)…. not so great for me.  But I have won there."
    And this time Busch will have $1 million on the line if he can now win Atlanta too.
     Then Richmond, where he won in the spring.

   However, elsewhere in the Joe Gibbs camp, things aren't looking that good.
   Hamlin is on the verge of failing to make the chase for the first time in his career. He and crew chief Mike Ford have three races to make something  big happen.

   It wouldn't be a NASCAR race without some politicians on hand. Here team owner Richard Childress (L) shakes hands with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), next to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And if Hamlin misses the chase?
  "That's part of the sport," Hamlin said, finally emerging from his hauler after an hour-long debriefing and cooling off period following his 35th place finish, triggered when he brushed the wall early in the three-hour race, which played out in front of an estimated 81,000. 
    "How many Super Bowl teams don't make the playoff the next year? 
      "It's just so hard…because any time you're on top, in our sport there are 42 guys hungry to beat you. 
      "As close as our cars are, as close as the driver talent is, one small thing that's a buckle in your program gets exploited by 10 or 15 positions. 
     "Us? I don't think we're far off.  Our teammate is winning races; our setups are close to his. 
      "But we have to figure out what makes me tick on the track…what makes me happy.
      "We've struggled to find that the last 10 weeks or so. 
     "There was a point in the season where we were leading a lot of laps, and just not finishing because of pit crew issues or mechanical issues. Everyone in that department has gotten better. Now the driver is making a few mistakes. 
     "We have to put it all together in these next three weeks."


  Jack Roush surveys Carl Edwards car, during mid-race engine repairs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

I just wonder with the engine

I just wonder with the engine issues at Gibbs if Gibbs can keep it together to push Kyle through for a championship. I hate to see Kyle become the next Mark Martin even through Kyle is still a young man.

Penske has been so freakin dominant it's scary. If the Dodge boys hadn't shown up to the party, the Chase wouldn't have been much of a problem for the usual suspects.

Disappointed that Roush and Childress have been so Jekyll and Hyde this year, although, Roush and Childress are always a hot mess with the organizational shifts. They are constantly making major changes internally it's surprising they run as well as they do. Maybe it's because most of the field are small newbie teams who are still either running start and park or hanging out in the back.

Denny is competing with 42 guys? That's being awfully polite Denny. There's probably about 15 guys that Denny has to worry about. No- just one in particular. That is Kyle Busch.

Still it's Hendrick Hendrick Hendrick. Jan Brady could relate to the irritation that Roush and Childress must feel. Roush and Childress have to be grinding their teeth in their sleep at night (if they sleep). Despite the issues at Stewart Haas and Dale Earnhardt Jr. testing driving the latest crew chief, Hendrick power is still tearing up the Chase. I don't think it matters if JJ wins the Chase so long as it's a Hendrick team or offshoot.

Man, NASCAR needs to make a new rule.

good points here. i need to

good points here. i need to get cracking on this engine stuff. havent been doing my job. nascar just put eight engines from michigan on the dyno. i need to find the results (if you hear, let me know).
Dodge is so strong wonder if it's time for nascar to lay out the parts again....lol
and i agree JRoush and RChildress do too much shaking up. figure it's to placate sponsors; from the crew guys i talk to, it doesnt help morale any which way. 42 guys, 15 guys? me, i'm thinking six guys at best, and anyone else is doing a one-off or lucky.
pencil JJ in for another championship. when i looked in his eyes postrace at michigan, and compared him to the challengers, JJ is ready to kick their butts. and they wont even know what happened.

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